In a major policy shift, the Ministry of Woman and Child Development (WCD) has prepared a proposal to substitute take-home rations, given in aanganwadis for infants under three and pregnant and lactating mothers, with cash transfers.
A total of 6.5 crore beneficiaries — 4.6 crore infants and 1.9 crore mothers — are currently given these rations under the Integrated Child Development Services. This universal nutrition entitlement scheme is meant to provide supplementary nutrition in the prenatal and neonatal stage for mothers and children — a crucial element in preventing child and maternal mortality, child malnutrition, and stunting of growth.
According to ministry sources, the cash transfer will initially be taken up on a pilot basis and then be extended across the country in a phased manner. “In the first phase, we will cover 300 of the most backward districts where, as per data, the extent of malnutrition and stunting of children is the highest. This will be followed by the remaining districts a year later,” said a ministry official.
The official said that the provision of hot, cooked meals in aaganwadis for children in the age group of 3-6 years (3.6 crore beneficiaries) will continue. The latest proposal, will be a part of the ministry’s National Nutrition Mission and, once finalised, sent to the Union Cabinet for approval, said officials.
The daily entitlement under the supplementary nutrition scheme, last revised in 2011, is Rs 6 for a child, Rs 7 for pregnant and lactating women, and Rs 9 for a severely malnourished child. The move to replace take-home rations with cash transfers will be accompanied by a proposal to increase the entitlement marginally to Rs 8, Rs 9.30, and Rs 12, respectively.
The cash transfer proposal is based on a recent report prepared by NITI Aayog, which has suggested ways for “Reforming Take Home Rations (THR) under the ICDS Scheme”.
The report points out that the “THR scheme has been plagued with complaints of leakages, poor quality food supplement and vested interests… As has evolved from various deliberations, after consultation with State Governments, pilots may be initiated in a few districts to test the efficacy of implementing the ICDS supplementary nutrition component through a cash transfer/ conditional cash transfer route (to be transferred directly in the Jan Dhan account of the mother).”
Cash transfers instead of food has been widely debated with several criticising it for not being an actual substitute for take-home rations, which is a mix of cereals, fats, sugar and pulses, with added micronutrients.
Dipa Sinha, who is part of the Right to Food Campaign, said that providing supplementary nutrition is the best way to address issues of availability gap. “Data from the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau shows that there is a protein-calorie gap in children as they are not consuming enough according to their age. Providing Supplementary nutrition is the best way to ensure that children get the right kind of food. In cash transfers, there is a possibility that the money is spent on other things,” she said.
“Moreover, our experience with cash transfers, be it old-age pensions or scholarships for needy children, show that it is never inflation indexed. This would mean that entitlement in the form of cash transfers would fail to keep pace with the rising food prices,” said Sinha.
The recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 data shows that 35.7 per cent of children under 5 years are underweight, 38.4 per cent stunted, and 21 per cent “wasting” (too thin for their height).
On Tuesday, the WCD ministry is scheduled to hold a day-long consultation with representatives from 113 districts, which include six left-wing extremism-affected districts. The remaining are mostly backward districts that score the worst on these indicators, 27 of which are in Uttar Pradesh and 20 in Bihar.
“In the ten years between NFHS 3 and NFHS 4, data shows that there has been on an average one per cent reduction per year in the extent of stunting, we want to set the target for 2 to 3 per cent annual reduction by involving district collectors directly,” said WCD Secretary Rakesh Srivastava.